“Professionals” and union action: chalk and cheese?

“Professionals” and union action: chalk and cheese?

Professionals and union action are commonly held to be incompatible. This deeply entrenched piece of conventional wisdom was challenged by Louise Boivin, professor at the Industrial Relations Department of the UQO (Université du Québec en Outaouais), at Comprendre pour choisir, the second edition of the APTS Carrefour des idées.

Boivin’s talk at the APTS event two years ago was an opportunity to step back and look at the broader picture in order to take appropriate action in our current situation. Here’s what she has to say.

We’re often told that professional action and union action are based on opposite mindsets. How do you explain this dichotomy?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “professionals.” These are people who belong to occupational categories with shared characteristics, including postsecondary education, expert knowledge that is recognized by a diploma, a strong commitment to their work, a certain level of autonomy (theoretically, at least!), a strong ethical component and, for many, a job in which the relational dimension is important. Following this definition, the word can also be applied to a number of technician job categories. On the basis of these shared characteristics, some management theories claim that professionals act on the basis of a mindset that is necessarily individualistic, corporatist, and focused on defending privileges related to their credentials or even their social status. In actuality, then, their mindset would be opposed to the union mindset, which emphasizes building the power of the group and solidarity between different categories of employees. Management discourse sometimes even claims that unions and their pressure tactics, such as strike action, are anti-professional. This type of guilt-inducing rhetoric has been used by successive governments to conceal their own responsibilities, notably during the pandemic.

Your research on the contemporary transformations of work, employment, and collective action and representation leads you to a completely different conclusion.

Yes. My research shows that union action by professionals, while it has its own unique characteristics, can also be a source of mobilization, activism and solidarity. This is particularly obvious today at a time when the privatization of public and para-public services is crystallizing around recourse to the private sector or, more insidiously, the habit of importing that sector’s management practices.

You studied a Québec mobilization, beginning in 2011, that you see as a powerful illustration of that point.

Yes. At the time, managers of what was still the CSSS d’Ahuntsic-Cartierville were attempting to implement an “optimization” method developed by a firm called Proaction. This was a “lean” management model calling for standardized procedures and reduction of what was defined, very subjectively, as “waste.” Health and social services employees affected by this model saw that their professional judgement, autonomy, and knowledge were being sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, and they also realized that these measures would cause services to deteriorate. Their mobilization was spectacular. With the help of their APTS local union, they organized a series of pressure tactics, filing no fewer than 12 collective grievances. Ultimately, they were successful. The model was withdrawn, and their collective action led to a very important arbitration ruling on the basic right to fair and reasonable working conditions. This ruling is studied today in labour law courses. It’s analyzed in a chapter I co-authored with Julie Bourgault, professor at the UQO Industrial Relations Department, in a collective publication called Les services sociaux à l’ère managériale.1

Based on the story of that mobilization, and other studies that you’ve carried out, you argue that there are two key factors that make union action seem relevant to professionals. What are those factors?

First of all, union action must be based on members’ participation at the local level. This ensures that it reflects their concerns, whether that means defending professional standards or denouncing the neoliberal restructuring of public services. We see that professional commitment does not erode a person’s commitment to the union. On the contrary, it strengthens that commitment if the union is seen as something enabling people to challenge decisions made by managers in the workplace. The goal, therefore, would be to create spaces at the local level for education, participation and mobilization, so that members can provide leadership, express their ideas and points of view, have their expertise recognized and help define union strategy.

Secondly, professionals – and this is especially true in health and social services – are drawn to the kind of union that is oriented to social transformation. That means a union that will make a connection between their concerns in the workplace and their wider concerns about social justice and climate justice, which are shared by allies. The APTS-FIQ campaign on the theme “Paid a woman’s wage” is an example – it stands for gender equality both in the workplace and throughout society as a whole.


1Louise Boivin and Julie Bourgault, “Nouvelle gestion publique, action syndicale et défense du droit à des conditions de travail justes et raisonnables”, in Josée Grenier and Mélanie Bourque (eds.), Les services sociaux à l’ère managériale, Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2018, pp. 247-274.

By Leïla AsselmanJULY 23, 2021